By Brigid Delaney in THE Guardian, 21 December 2018
Driving through Victoria this week, and the farms are emerald with recent rain, but my friend is agitated because we’re lost. As navigator I’ve punched in the wrong street to Google maps, and we are flying blind into a maze of secondary roads.
We can’t be late for a funeral.
We had been talking in the car about how Christmas can be a perilous time. My friend is an ambulance officer and tells me the call out rates for suicides are high this time of the year. We fall silent. This funeral we’re racing to is for a young man who ended his life at 21. We’re friends with his parents yet on the journey down we can hardly talk about it. We start conversations that quickly splutter to a stop.
Language is not developed to properly describe loss, particularly for people this young. Words are threadbare. We talk about how terrible it must be. But “terrible” is a word used to describe a bad meal or disappointing experience. Not this.
Instead loss is felt in the body. All week since I’ve heard the news, I feel like I’ve swallowed a box of tissues that have become lodged and swollen. There’s something heavy stuck in my chest.
We arrive at the service on the edge of town, somehow on time. Eminem is playing, we can hear it from the carpark. The venue is enormous and it’s packed. This kid is so loved. Inside the air is thick, like an exhale of too many people sighing at once.
Christmas’s shrill, tinselly message of togetherness and family often acts as a reproach to those who are feeling sad or lonely, or who have suffered loss, bereavement or some other sort of existential shock.
Christmas can bring things to a head, gathering the small insecurities and sadnesses into sharp focus. It becomes a day to get through and endure.
The only different images of Christmas to the ideal that we see in the media are the appeals to give to poor families or children that have no presents. We are being asked to give to them. Because they are the Other.
But it’s never that binary. There are good years and bad years. Surely everyone has had a Christmas where for one reason or another they have felt absolutely desolate.
There is a broader Christmas narrative (and no, it’s not the actual Christmas narrative of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem) on an annual loop. All the movies and the songs present Christmas as the ultimate healer – the time when everyone comes together and all the ends are tied neatly.
But for many people Christmas is the problem, not the resolution. They are able to manage just fine until that day rolls around and it all barrels towards them; the loss, and the disappointments, the people they wish were there and the people they wish weren’t.
How lonely that feeling is – that you are the only one having a bad Christmas.
You have to look hard in our culture to find anything that captures the complications and even pain of Christmas.
More opaque but no less affecting is TS Eliot’s poem The Journey of Magi.
Published in 1927, it reads like a Christmas standard – the three wise men making their journey to see the Christ-child but its cracked through with ambiguity and loss. On the journey out the “ways are deep and the weather sharp.” In the cold, there are reveries of home (“The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces/ The silken girls bringing sherbert”) and foreshadowing of future pain and loss of the crucifixion in the “three trees against a low sky”.
The poem concludes with a melancholy question:
… were we led all that way forBirth or Death?”
Pop culture with its songs and its art and its poetry are always great at making us feel less alone. But it’s blindspot is Christmas. Maybe it’s time that we reimagine Christmas slightly differently – to bring in from the cold those that are experiencing suffering.